GMAT Percentiles & 80th% Quant Confusion

GMAT Percentiles and 80th Percentile Confusion

You’ve decided that an MBA is the right path for you. A diligent person, you make a list of your favorite MBA programs and note the median GMAT scores so you can set a proper goal. Because you’ve got your sights set on the top ten with a soft spot for the top three a 700+ score seems imperative. Fair enough. You’ve done well on standardized tests and aren’t afraid of a good challenge. Three months later after grueling through a couple hundred hours of studying you are sitting in front of a rather schlubby looking computer taking your official GMAT. It’s challenging, especially on the Quant side. You were a bit rushed there. Verbal was a slog but there were no surprises. A few clicks after the last verbal question and: 720! 94th percentile! You made it!!! Or did you? You notice that you nearly failed the Quant with a percentile in the low 60’s. What?!! How is that possible? Damn you GMAT Quant percentile! Is Harvard slipping away? The short answer is: no, Harvard is not slipping away. Everything is OK. Read on for a detailed analysis of GMAT percentiles and why the 80th percentile on Quant isn’t necessary for admission to a top MBA program. (Quick note for those looking to energize GMAT scores ahead of round 2, 2017 we're offering a GMAT retake class in October and November.)

A brief history of GMAT Percentiles and the mysteriously shifting 80th percentile Quant Score

Back in 2000, a GMAT scaled score of 45 represented the 82nd percentile (see table).

GMAT Percentiles 2000
GMAT Percentiles from 2000. Notice that 45q is the 80th percentile!

That seems to be when the 80th percentile really mattered. Since then, as illustrated in the accompanying tables, what was the 80th percentile has dipped to the 78th, 75th, 71st, and now D grade 63rd percentile. Astonishing! So, yes, the 80th percentile does matter. But not the 2016 80th percentile, the 2000 one:). Why have the GMAT percentiles changed? The simple answer is that more people are getting perfect or near perfect scores. In fact, the way that the GMAT percentiles are now, there is no 99th percentile. You can only get to the 97th percentile. A full three percent of GMAT test takers are ringing up a perfect score. Why are people doing better? I’d like to think that Atlantic GMAT is the sole reason but the facts point elsewhere. It has to do with the shifting demographics of GMAT test takers. People from countries that tend to provide a better math education than is provided in the US have been taking the GMAT in much greater numbers. These folks are making the GMAT percentiles (on the Quant side) much more competitive. Here is a more in depth discussion on changing GMAT Quant percentiles and how Americans are lagging. One interesting little tidbit from the article, "according to GMAC, Asia students spend an average of 151 hours in test preparation; U.S. students average 64 hours."

Here you can see a Quant scaled score of 45 drop to the 78th percentile,

GMAT Percentiles 2003 Chart
GMAT Percentiles 2003. 45q lost 80th percentile status!

and then to the 75th!

GMAT Percentiles 2015
GMAT Percentiles Quant 2005. A 45q dropped to the 75th percentile!

Here the Q45 plummets to the 71st percentile 

GMAT Percentiles 2009
GMAT Percentiles from 2009. The rats are leaving the ship!

and then, finally, the sad looking 63rd percentile where it sits in 2016.

GMAT Percentiles 2016
GMAT Percentiles 2016. A once desired 45q has sunk to the 63rd percentile.

GMAT percentiles vs GMAT scaled scores and Why a 63rd percentile GMAT Score is OK

Part of why achieving a 2016 80th percentile GMAT Quant score doesn’t matter is that a GMAT percentile score only measures relative ability. It is the scaled score that measures absolute ability. So a Quant 45 from 2016 is the same as a Quant 45 from 1997. That’s why the sub-section scaled score is more meaningful than the percentile score. It is a measure of your skills. And, people who have been doing admissions for years recognize that. The percentiles may change, but the scaled scores still represent a known quantity in terms of ability. Here's an article straight from the 'horses mouth' (GMAC) discussing GMAT scaled scores and GMAT scoring.

With a Quant 45 you have the skills to face the rigor of an MBA even if your percentile seems pathetic. Do you need to have a near perfect quant score to do well in an MBA program? Nope. Think about it like this: let’s say there’s a certain amount of weight that you have to be able to lift in order to become a fireman in New York City. Let’s say that’s 200 pounds. Does it make you a more qualified fireman if you can lift 400 pounds? Not necessarily. Once you've crossed the 200 pound threshold, there are probably other skills that are more important than lifting weight. So it is with the GMAT. At some percentile (well below the 80th percentile) your Quant skills are proven and so your total GMAT score, combined percentile, and the rest of your application become more important.

A few recent examples of real people with sub 80th percentile GMAT Quant scores admitted to top ten schools

Harvard (HBS)

Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 710 Breakdown: 45q 42v (2015)

Semi-Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 670 Breakdown: 43q 39v (2015)


Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 720 Breakdown: 46q 44v (2014)

Less Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 620 Breakdown: 36q 40V (2014)


Semi-Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 710 Breakdown: 45q v42 (2015)

Less Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 700 Breakdown: 43q 42v (2015)

When does an imbalance in GMAT percentiles warrant a retake?

This advice really depends on who you are (as seen in the examples above). If you have a proven math background, a 700+ score, but a super low quant percentile, you might be totally fine. If you have a desirable background/story that a particular school is looking for, again, a lower Quant score could be A-OK.

Here are some rough and ready guidelines for when to consider a retake (assuming you are applying to the “crème de la crème” MBA programs)

  1. Most people with a Quant score below a 45 gunning for the top two or three MBA programs.
  2. Most people who are in a competitive bracket with a Quant score below a 45.
  3. Any applicant applying to top ten-ish schools with a quant score below a 40.

Have you had a different experience with your admissions process? Follow up with any questions or comments!

Just for fun, here are the GMAT percentile charts composite scores over the past 15 years or so starting from the year 2000 all the way to the most current GMAT percentiles:

GMAT Percentiles 2000 Chart
In 2000, a 750 was in the 99th percentile!



GMAT Percentiles to 2006

GMAT Percentiles up to 2007

GMAT Percentiles up to 2009
GMAT Percentiles 2009
Current GMAT Percentiles
Most Current GMAT Percentiles (Composite Score)
French (quant) Revolution, q34 to q45!

French (quant) Revolution!

I teach the GMAT to people from all over the world. Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, England, Kuwait, Greece, India... Ten years ago I did zero online tutoring. Today, it comprises 50%+ of my GMAT work. In terms of my GMAT tutoring, of all the places in the world, besides Africa, Europe is the most underrepresented. Why? Maybe there isn’t as much of a test preparation culture or a standardized test culture? Or maybe the dearth of European GMAT students is due to the fact that education in Europe is often free. So Europeans are less motivated to pursue an egregiously expensive (from their perspective) MBA in the good old USA. Still, the GMAT has become something of a standard for admission to most prestigious business programs in the world. So, even if you want to attend a European university, the GMAT is still relevant. And, with GMAT scores creeping up, even our European friends occasionally need a helping hand.

In comes Dora - a rare european student. She had taken a “big box” online GMAT class and put a real effort into her studying only to score a 570 (q34 v34) on GMAT day. She was distraught and confused as she had done so much better on the “big box” practice tests (beware third party questions and scoring algorithms) she had taken during her preparation. Now she was a 100+ points away from a safe score for application to Europe’s finest MBA programs. Feeling overwhelmed with studying and underwhelmed with her previous GMAT preparation, she took a shot in the dark and contacted me for some guidance. In our consultation, she made it clear that she couldn’t afford to spend much money on private tutoring. I immediately hung up the phone. Just kidding!

GMAT Critical Reasoning eureka and a shaky Quant

Although Dora was a non-native english speaker she excelled at verbal. After an intense session of assumption based critical reasoning she exclaimed “I get it!”. Something had popped in her brain. I had a tough time believing that the CR approach had improved so quickly but her LSAT work reflected a sea change. She was scoring 90%+ on some brutal critical reasoning! It was great to find a strength. If you’re looking for a way to boost your GMAT verbal take a look at this LSAT for GMAT article.

The GMAT Quant was another story altogether. She was afraid of it. She would start a question and even when headed in the right direction would quickly break down. In her mind, the numbers were probably swirling all over the page, mocking her. We worked on pushing through that initial anxiety and of course gave her a solid method for approaching all of the major GMAT question types. I ignored the oddballs and the toughest of the tough (these questions aren’t very important for most people) because if you’re already feeling anxious why focus on things that don’t have a huge impact on your score and are only going to make you more anxious?

The Quant clicks and GMAT day 1.0

With some solid organizational strategies and a bit of encouragement, Dora could solve most official GMAT questions. On quant, she was scoring in the low to mid 40’s on her practice tests. We were on target! Test day came. 640 (q39, 37v). We were both happy to see the 70 point jump but disappointed about the Quant score. It just wasn’t representative of the work she had been doing. Still, the 640 put her in a decent place in terms of admissions.

An Unconventional GMAT Prep

Fast forward a few months - an email from Dora floated into my inbox. She was dead-set on improving the Quant percentile. Why? An admissions person from her dream school had told her that moving the needle on the quant would win her the golden ticket. Again - she made the budget very clear:)

This preparation was a bit unconventional. I set up a two month GMAT study plan for her without any tutoring. She was to work through the schedule on her own and then we would have three meetings in the weeks leading up to the exam to give her a final boost. The schedule took some real effort and planning but it helped that Caroline was extremely organized and had provided me with exactly how much time she had each day (for 60 days in advance!) to study. If you would like an idea of how detailed these schedules are take a look here: GMAT Study Plan

She muscled through this second preparation, walking right over some real GMAT monsters without breaking a sweat. No more of the panicky, trembling voice. Just one foot in front of the other no-muss no-fuss critical thinking. Yes! Test day came. Another 640. Ah c-r-a-p. The Quant had improved from a 39 to a 42. The verbal had dipped. After our post GMAT wrap up we decided to do another 5 week blast, this time with a bit more verbal work. Once again, Dora was a trooper and diligently completed her GMAT assignments. She tackled questions that would have left her in tears only months earlier. Test day: 660 q45 v35. Victory. Two weeks later she was admitted to IESE.

GMAT Schedule: Week 3

(if you are just getting started then you might want to read the intro to the GMAT Study Schedules)


Yep, it’s the third week of your GMAT preparation. Congrats on getting here! Those first two weeks are rough. This GMAT schedule is not for the faint of heart. You have solved (and re-solved hopefully) a whole bunch of GMAT questions and should be feeling a bit more comfortable with your algebra. Your error log should be filling up with tricky GMAT puzzles! Feeling a bit unsure about some challenging GMAT questions? That's normal - here is an article on reviewing tough GMAT questions. Remember to review anything for which you don’t have a good strategy. That means that some questions that you got correct should be in your error log.  Here is an article on reviewing GMAT Questions that you got right for the wrong reasons.

If you are still feeling a bit shaky on algebra then you should go back and spend more time on PS/DS word problems/algebraic translation problems. If you really don’t feel good at all about your algebra then you might consider a Quant review book such as the Foundations of GMAT Math. Here is an article that might help about using the Khan Academy to help build your GMAT Quant Basics: GMAT Khan Academy. Although the GMAT specific stuff is a bit klunky the video lessons on Quant basics can be very helpful.

This GMAT schedule is challenging and moves quickly so there’s no shame in spending an extra week or two getting your GMAT fundamentals in great shape. They are critical for a great GMAT score!  Many people make the mistake of focusing on the tough, strange, and super challenging GMAT questions but really the most important thing is meat and potatoes algebra.

This week we will focus on GMAT geometry: lines, triangles, quadrilaterals, circles, polygons, 3d shapes, mixed shapes, and coordinate geometry. Memorize all of the basic rules!  There’s no excuse for not knowing the ratio of sides of a right isosceles triangle! Feel free to practice with a formula sheet so that you are always applying the proper rules. It is better to study “open book” than to try to memorize formulas in a vacuum. The other things that help is to write down all the formulas that you are trying to remember before every study session. This only takes a few minutes but can help a ton! Here is a post with some easy but not so obvious tips for getting the most out of your GMAT studying

You will also be continuing with a more advanced set of exponents/roots/absolute value questions and work/rate/ratio/percent questions.  All of the rules are the same but the questions get denser. Stay organized.  Define what you are looking for. Take the question step by step. This week we will also begin with "general sets" so that you solve a mix of questions. You will see repeats in these sets because some of the questions have appeared in the targeted sets. You can skip the repeats if you are absolutely sure that you know how to solve them. Also, remember that this GMAT schedule is all about staying organised and breaking down your studying into manageable chunks so try to study consistently and avoid cramming massive amounts of work. If you miss a day then use the day off to catch up or just add a day to your studying.


By now you should have a general strategy for each of the verbal sections. It’s time to get some tough practice. There isn’t quite enough challenging Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning in the Official Guide or the Verbal Review so you are going to work on LSAT sections. These LSAT questions are dense and unforgiving!  Be ready for a challenge.  But challenge is fun right?  You wouldn’t want to work on all the easy stuff and then get mowed down by the real test:)  Nope, not you. Here's a GMAT vs. LSAT article for those who are curious about the differences between these two tests.

For the LSAT Logical Reasoning take 40 minutes per section.  Skip parallel reasoning (the argument is most similar to..), parallel flaw (the error in reasoning is most similar to), and justify the reasoning (which of the following principles most justifies...) questions. For the LSAT Reading Comprehension take 12 minutes per passage. We will also be exploring more Sentence Correction question types (Modifiers, Lists) and more Critical Reasoning question types (Paradox, Evaluate). If you are finding that the LSAT Logical Reasoning work is too challenging then do only questions 1-15 for now. If the LSAT Reading comprehension is too challenging then replace the LSAT work with GMAT work. Friendly reminded to keep reading an Economist article everyday. This really works! Here is an article on reading the Economist to improve Reading Comprehension.




GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - Sentence Correction

Lists 18, 37, 41, 46, 54, 55, 56, 57, 63, 66, 75, 79, 109, 112, 116, 134. 138

Modifiers 8, 19, 22, 29, 41, 47, 48, 59, 65, 74, 82, 87, 104, 110, 112, 132, 135

GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - Critical Reasoning

Evaluate 10, 15, 27, 36, 42, 47, 68, 70, 72, 110, 114, 124

Paradox 3, 6, 9, 13, 24, 44, 49, 57, 61, 86, 92, 94, 99



GMAT Quantitative Review 2nd Edition - Geometry

Problem Solving:  7, 15, 21, 30, 44, 71, 76, 83, 85, 89, 102, 105, 110, 123, 135, 139, 141, 145, 150, 153, 157, 162, 175

Data Sufficiency:  4, 11, 19, 22, 43, 58, 59, 60, 72, 88, 91, 95, 99, 114, 123

GMAT Verbal Review 2nd Edition - Critical Reasoning
Evaluate 3, 40, 42, 54, 66, 70

Paradox 8, 60, 72, 73

LSAT Prep Test (12 minutes)

1 LSAT Reading Comprehension Passage


GMAT Verbal Review 2nd Edition - Sentence Correction

Lists 1, 2, 5, 7, 15, 24, 26, 27, 49, 53, 58, 61, 63, 67, 68, 77, 78, 86, 91, 95, 112

Modifiers 34, 53, 57, 71, 75, 88, 92, 96, 100, 109, 111

GMAT Official Guide 13th EditionRate/Work

Problem Solving:  139, 162, 168, 207

Data Sufficiency:  106, 107, 108, 115

GMAT Quantitative Review 2nd Edition

Problem Solving: 136, 140, 142

Data Suffiency: 55, 71, 117

LSAT Prep Test (40 Minutes)

1 LSAT Logical Reasoning Section


GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - Geometry

Problem Solving: 13, 18, 28, 36, 43, 61, 62, 69, 75, 78, 92, 104, 121, 125, 147, 159, 161

Data Suffiency:  11, 19, 30, 35, 42, 56, 73, 74, 79, 100, 102, 113, 117, 122, 128

LSAT Prep Test

1 LSAT Logical Reasoning Section (40 Minutes)

2 LSAT Reading Comprehension Passages (24 Minutes)

DAY 5 - GMAT Holiday!!


LSAT Prep Test

2 LSAT Reading Comprehension Passages (24 Minutes)

GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - Exponents/Roots/Absolute Value  Continued

Problem Solving: 143, 146, 149, 157, 163, 164, 170, 176, 180, 191, 199, 209, 217, 227, 230

Data Sufficiency: 157, 159, 160, 162, 167, 169

GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - General Set

Data Sufficiency:   35-64

Sentence Correction 1-29

GMAT Verbal Review 2nd Edition

SC 1-29

Feeling good about GMAT Geometry? Let's get some extra tough practice and learn some GMAT Geometry Tips and Tricks:

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 1

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 2

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 3

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 4

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 5

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 6

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 7

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 8 (This one is super tough)

GMAT Question of the Day Geometry 9


GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - Ratio

Problem Solving 177, 179, 188, 200

Data Sufficiency 81, 114

GMAT Quantitative Review 2nd Edition

Problem Solving  84, 155

Data Sufficiency  67

GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - Percent/Percent Change

Problem Solving 177

Data Sufficiency 151

GMAT Quantitative Review 2nd Edition

Problem Solving 138, 143, 154

GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - Average

Problem Solving 145, 208

Data Sufficiency 121

GMAT Quantitative Review 2nd Edition

Problem Solving 116, 137

Data Sufficiency  118

GMAT Official Guide 13th Edition - General Set

Problem Solving:  50-79

LSAT Prep Test

1 LSAT Logical Reasoning Section (40 Minutes)


Economist Reading Comprehension Challenge #6

Having trouble with GMAT reading comprehension science passages? Here's a great challenge for you! Many of my GMAT students complain about the difficulties they have with GMAT science passages so I picked out a science topic for this week's challenge. If this is your first challenge or you just want to refresh yourself on why you are bothering with these at all then have a look at this post on using the Economist to improve GMAT reading comprehension.  Happy Studies!


The Economist: Small but Deadly

1. Which of the following is most strongly supported about the extinctions mentioned in the first paragraph of the passage?

A. They had similar causes but different outcomes

B. They were similar in that they each wiped out over 80% of the animal species on earth

C. There were similar extinctions before the Cambrian period

D. It is unknown whether they had different causes

E. Their combined force permitted the rise of the reptiles

2. According to the passage which of the following is implied about mammals before the Cretaceous period?

A. Their flourishing was at least partially suppressed by competition with other species

B. Having gone under rapid evolution they faced fierce competition from more established organisms.

C. They evolved specialized social behavior which helped them rise out of obscurity in the post-Cambrian period.

D. They were better adapted than most other species to deal with changing atmospheric conditions.

E. Fewer species of them became extinct than species of reptiles

3. Which of the following statements is best supported about the weakened ecosystems mentioned in the 4th paragraph of the passage?

A. Some species benefited from a weakening of the world’s ecosystem

B. During periods of more frequent volcanic eruptions the ecosystem was more disrupted than during periods with fewer volcanic eruptions

C. Some of the volcanic eruptions were the effect and not the cause of some of the weakened ecosystems

D. They were the primary cause of the extinctions in the Cretaceous period.

E. The weakened ecosystems were the most important amongst several factors that caused an abrupt extinction at the end Permian period

4. According to the passage Dr. Tohver would most likely agree that each of the following were major contributors to the extinctions in the Cambrian period EXCEPT:

A. The mix of gasses in the atmosphere

B. uncharacteristic seismic activity

C. an increase in volcanic eruptions

D. Global warming

E. The geology of Araguainha


1. D

2. A

3. A

4. C


Economist Reading Comprehension Challenge #5

Time for another GMAT reading comprehension booster shot! I enjoyed this article and thought I would pass it on to everyone. I hope that you enjoy the article and the RC questions!  In case you are just starting out with the Economist Reading Comprehension Challenge take a look at this article about using the economist to improve GMAT reading comprehension. Happy Studies!!

Here is the link to the Economist article: ... tty-tissue

The Economist: Altered States

1. Which of the following best expresses the main point of the passage?

A. While long known that exercise lowers cholesterol a new study has conclusively demonstrated that exercise also protects against a wide range of diseases such as diabetes and osteoporosis.

B. A new study has demonstrated that exercise could help the body store fat cells more efficiently.

C. Long known as a panacea for health, exercise has been shown to have far reaching effects even when done inconsistently.

D. While long known to improve health and protect the body from various ills, exercise has now been shown to help the body store excess calories in a healthier way.

E. Exercise promotes health and protects the body from various diseases but lifestyle choices have an equal impact on overall health and longevity.

2. According to the passage each the following is a benefit of exercise EXCEPT?

A. A stronger and more efficient immune response

B. Protection from heart attacks

C. A healthier allocation of fat cells

D. Greater cell communication

E. A more efficient cardiovascular system

3. The passage supports which of the following statements about epigenetic markers?

A. To understand the most important benefits of exercise it is critical to understand their structure

B. In the past, it has been too expensive to analyze them

C. Although there may be challenges related to studying them, detecting them is relatively easy.

D. Without them exercise would be far less beneficial

E. They are more difficult to detect in a person with adult-onset diabetes

4. The study mentioned in the third paragraph supports which of the following statements about exercise?

A. There is a minimum amount of exercise necessary to see some of the benefits normally associated with exercise.

B. Increasing the number of work-out sessions per week will increase the benefits of exercise but any amount of exercise is still beneficial to bodily health

C. Physiological changes from exercise can be observed in as little as six months of moderate work-outs

D. Although fatty tissue is considered an organ it is of far less importance than the liver or the pancreas

E. Muscle tissue is different than fatty tissue in that the latter is considered an organ and releases chemicals that have an impact on other organs.


1. D

2. A

3. C

4. C



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